Trolls with Directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn and Production Designer Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin

Trolls: Interview with Directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn and Production Designer Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin

If there's one word that could be used to describe DreamWorks' Trolls it would be happy. Based on the popular toy dolls, Trolls is a musical adventure hybrid whose story boils down to keeping a positive outlook on life. We sat down with Directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn and Production Designer Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin to talk about bringing the miniscule world of the Trolls to life as well as the film's musical influences. Like the film itself, the trio were more than happy to answer our questions.

Shakefire(SF): We’re seeing this evolution of animated films being not just for kids anymore. 
Mike Mitchell (MM): Yeah, that’s the way we do it, too. We like to make it for everyone because we have kids. I have a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old. 
Walt Dohrn (WD): I have a 13 and 3 and one on the way. 
Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin (KCS): And I have an 18 and 14. 
MM: So we make it for us and for our kids, and I think that’s the new way and why they’re so popular. These films are going up against Marvel films and doing really well. I think that’s why. 
WD: People say kids movie, and they are for kids, but we never approach it like that, ever. From the get-go it’s for everyone. Everyone in the world, which is a really nice challenge to us.
MM: We’re finding it’s really cool. We’re showing this film around, and it seems like boys are really digging it, which is nice because we thought for sure this was a geared towards girls but boys are really… 
WD: Well when we make the movie we make it for everyone; young, old, girls, boys. Like literally for everyone is our goal. So now that we’re showing it and we’re seeing young boys like that. I talked to a group of 14-year-old boys who saw the movie the other day and they were like, “It was great!” 
MM: So it’s good to get a little break from your superheroes and go see Trolls

SF: I think it’s relatable for them. 
KCS: The Branch character is completely relatable. 
MM: And he’s got a good message for them too because, not to get too serious, but all the news is so scary, not just for kids but for me. It’s scary and dark. The internet, I find it to be very judgemental and negative. 
WD: The world itself is a place of a lot of social unrest and violence and conflict, and that’s why we wanted to make a movie about happiness. 
MM: We’re hopeful that people will be open, and it’s nice that the older kids are digging it. They’re saying, “This is great. This is for us.” and that makes me feel good.
KCS: The music too, right? Because we can all relate to it. 
MM: The music from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and then Justin’s song that he made for us. “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” he wrote that song for the film! He helped update all these songs so I call this movie, I don’t know if I’m supposed to advertise this but, the Guitar Hero of movies. Because parents are like, “I know this song and I’m so happy that my kid is knowing this song now too.” 
WD: But it ends up being that the name Guitar Hero is now an old reference.
MM: I know. They’re like no one plays Guitar Hero anymore. 
WD: We just can’t keep up. 
MM: We’ll we’ve been working on the film for three years. 
WD: What’s funny is that song, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” was great because we were really struggling with the end of the movie. How do we do this? It was all about transforming the Bergens. It was really hard to do with an inspirational speech. 
MM: Well we listened to a thousand songs and none of them could pull it off. We’re like, “This isn’t working for the film.” 
WD: Yeah. Traditionally a character would say - and Poppy’s got a little bit of a speech in there and she would kinda say, “Here’s what you guys need to do,” and all the characters would say, “Yes!” So we said to Justin that we need a song here that transforms a whole race of creatures’ world view. And he’s like, “Okay, I got it.” 
MM: And then he said, “And maybe I’ll make it a hit song.” And I laughed. I thought he was joking. “Yeah, why don’t you do that buddy.” 

SF: And then he did. 
WD: He did it! 

SF: Okay, I’m going to admit I got a little emotional. 
MM: Oh, in “True Colors?” You’re not alone. It’s so funny to watch this film. It does have some emotional moments in it. I think the tough guys in the crowd are very happy for 3D because it’s hiding their tears. You can see really tough guys in there sniffing and wiping their eyes in “True Colors.” 
WD: Yeah, in “True Colors” we saw that. When we start previewing the movie and it’s still in a rough form we saw people were kinda resistant to the movie but when “True Colors” comes on you could see people being drawn into it and holding back their tears. 
MM: Little kids, too, usually never get quiet in a film. Or when the film gets quiet they’re rocking in their chairs. It is like silent when that “True Colors” part comes. It’s very dramatic; it’s very moving. 
MM: But that song is cool. The “Can’t Stop the Feeling” then is more of a happy cry, right?

SF: What was the one thing you said we can’t mess this up, we gotta get it right? And what was the challenge in that? 
WD: I know what it was; hair. 
KCS: So yeah, the doll is our muse really. Half that thing is hair so it was. Hair became written into the script as a source of magic for our characters. 
MM: Yeah, it’s like their superpower. 
KCS: Superpower, multicolored, which led kinda to how we visually helped tell the happiness story. We linked color and multicolor to happiness, because that’s kinda hard to visually represent. But it worked because that was our inspiration, and it worked really well. 
MM: And they could change the shape of their hair. They could stretch it. They could swing. 

SF: And they made the wig.
MM: Most importantly! They crawl up on Zooey Deschanel’s head and they make a Farrah Fawcett wig. 

SF: In rainbow colors. 
MM: Right! 
KCS: And then it kinda led to the fiber art idea for the look of the film where it’s all fuzzy and all fibery. So that handmade quality came from that as well. 
MM: It’s cool. The technology for these CGI films is so sophisticated now that things look so realistic. You can make skin look just like skin. What Kendal did with the trolls is she made them like gummy bears that had been flocked in velvet. Then even their homes are made of hair and the tree is made of felt. And the ground instead of grass is carpet. It’s really funky and weird. 
WD: We really wanted this handmade feel to the movie. We live in such a digital world and we obviously used digital technology to create the world, but we really wanted that handmade feel. I think that’s what people are connecting to. 

SF: It also fits that scrapbooking theme, too. 
WD: That is actually...we had a professional scrapbooker.
MM: Kendel brought in a real scrapbooker and she had scissors and glitter all over the office. 
WD: You’d go get your coffee and the would be glitter and you’d see her there with glue and scissors. Those were actually made. 
KCS: She did them practically and then shot them. Then we put them into the computer and animated them in After Effects. 
MM: It was really cool because even she was hopeful. She was like, “Man I hope kids see this movie and feel that they can go home and do scrapbooks themselves.” It was so creative. We also brought in a, who’s that person who made us a whole forest out of felt? 
KCS: Yeah, so when we decided to do this fiber art inspired world, just because we wanted it to have real authority and not just be “oh, I’m going to build a grey CG model and cover it in fabric.” So we hired a fiber artist, Sayuri Suzuki. We found her because she did this incredible permanent exhibit in the Portland airport of a jellyfish tank all done in fiber that was so beautiful. So what she did was take a bunch of our art and we said, “Just use it and build us a forest. And use every fiber technique you can think of because we are going to analyze it and pour over it.” 
MM: We put lights on it to see how it took lighting. 
KCS: How does it light. We used it as our reference and inspiration in all the departments that were responsible for building the world. 
WD: It seems really successful because the audience is saying it’s such a tactile world they feel like they could reach in and touch it.
MM: In fact, some kids are reaching in to touch it. With the 3D effects, too. 
WD: Yeah, the 3D really helps with what we call our “fuzzy immersion.” You feel like you’re transported to this little world that’s comfy and cozy and nice. It is a great use of 3D. Some people use it gratuitously but I think you guys did a nice job. 
MM: Yeah, we really got into it on this one. You’ve [Kendal] worked on 3D films before, and we did a 3D film years ago but it was just the beginning of it. That was around Avatar time. It was one of the first 3D films that we did at DreamWorks. This time we felt that we’ve got this, we really want to take advantage of the 3D. 
WD: Everyone worked together to get that feeling. 
KCS: Yeah, when you design the movie you create this visual structure of how you’re going to visually tell the story over the length of it and use elements to push the dramatics visually. So we also do that with camera and with stereo so we’re looking at where do we pull and push that stereo. 
MM: And you know what, usually that’s done on a graph computerly. She did it with thread! She had little natural fiber threads that brought us over the wall. Even behind the scenes everything was natural fibers and colorful threads! 
KCS: An example of that was we kinda had this troll camera. It’s like a macro camera because our characters are “this” high in a human world so when the camera is down on them the background falls out of focus really quickly which happens when you’re shooting insects or snails. We have all this great snail photography. 
MM: Like documentaries for bugs and stuff like this. The backgrounds are all out of focus.
KCS: Which flattens the space. And that was our troll camera, but when the Bergens come in we open up and go really deep, also with the stereo. And then when Bridget comes down into Trolls and becomes friends with Poppy she comes into Trolls camera. So we play with the stereo camera a lot. 
MM: Yeah, there’s like two different worlds in our camera. 

SF: Talk about turning the film into the whole musical aspect of it. That wasn’t the original vision and then when you both came on it went in that direction. 
MM: When we came on that’s what we brought. We were like, “We want to make this a musical.” 
WD: But not a traditional musical. 
MM: We just wanted to do an adventure film that had… 
WD: It’s not really a musical, we just call it a comedy adventure with music. We wanted the music to be integrated into the story more than we had done in the past like with Shrek and things. 
MM: We wanted to use songs that we knew like Needle Drop music, which we’ve kinda done in the past. 
WD: Like classic songs.
MM: So we got songs from all the different eras. Again, when we cast Justin Timberlake it was just for his voice because he’s got a great sense of humor. He’s on Saturday Night Live, and he’s so funny. So we had him come in for a voice and we started to pitch him early on some of the music that we had. I think we had Earth, Wind, and Fire, Lionel Richie. WD: Simon & Garfunkel. 
MM: And he went crazy for it. He’s like, “I see what you guys are doing, and I want to be a part of it, and I want to be your music producer.” 

SF: I saw that he had a musical credit.
MM: And we said, “Yes, please!” Then it was cool because usually in these animated films the actors are all separate. Well because of Justin, he’s our lead actor, he’s also in there with whatever actor, like Anna Kendrick, he spent a lot of time with her singing. So they’re singing together, performing together. 
WD: I think that helped them create this bond that you see with Poppy and Branch that you normally may not feel because they became buddies. 
MM:Everyone on the crew. Guys, this film has been so weird. The whole crew is excessively happy and it’s kinda crazy. At the end it was like the end of summer camp. Everyone was crying and hugging. 
WD: The cult of Trolls. 

SF: So you’ll have to get a sequel to bring everyone back again. 
MM: Wouldn’t that be nice? We’ll see. 
KCS: I think that says something. Happy crew, happy movie. Happy movie, happy crew. 
MM: I think it comes out on the screen. I’ve never worked with a cast that was so energetic. James Corden is hilarious and can sing. John Cleese is so funny from Monty Python. Russell Brand is a freak. The cast alone just blew me away. Hearing Anna and Justin sing together I like, “They need to do this more often.” 
WD: Did you see the footage at Cannes? We went to Cannes with them and they sang on stage “True Colors.” It was so vulnerable and fragile. 
MM: People were weeping in the audience. 
KCS: And that was the first time they performed it together, right? 
MM: Yeah, it was like it was meant to be. 
KCS: They were nervous. 
MM: Justin’s never nervous.
WD: Anna was nervous, but only in an excited way. 
MM: Well it’s live, man, with the acoustic conversion. That’s all about the voice. 
WD: It captures that vulnerable and fragility that the characters have. 

SF: Is there any favorite quote that really translates the message of this movie?
MM: Well, “Find your happy place.” 
WD: “The power of optimism.” Optimism is a practical and powerful tool that we have. 
MM: It’s underrated, an optimistic attitude. I think people look at it these days and go, “Oh that person’s too happy and naive.” I think there’s a lot of power to be happy and positive. 
WD: It is really practical. If you look at the film itself, Poppy saves her friends because she has this optimistic attitude that they’re alive. If it was up to Branch, he’s like “They’re gone. They’re eaten.” 
MM: We roll credits. 
WD: Yeah, and her friends wouldn’t have been saved. So optimism is powerful. 
MM: That and just happiness. It’s great to be happy. Why shouldn’t we be happy, especially these days? Entertainment has got a little dark, in my opinion, or I should say just the world itself. 
WD: Well what we found out was that we’re all born with this innate ability to be happy and that sometimes you need someone to help you find it. It was just this great idea that it doesn’t matter who you are or what situation or conflict you’re facing, you have the ability to be happy. MM: It’s inside; it’s inside you. That’s the message we want to get across.

Trolls arrives in theaters on November 4, 2016.

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
Follow him @ Twitter
Friend him @ Facebook